‘The Ineffable Jimmy’

Robert Pearce outlines the extraordinary career of trade union leader-turned-politician J.H. Thomas.

Britain’s first ever Labour government took office on 22 January 1924 amid howls of protest from the Conservative establishment. According to The English Review, Britain was ‘menaced with final eclipse … The party of revolution approach their hands to the helm of the state, not only … for the purpose of overthrowing the Crown or for altering the Constitution, but with the design of destroying the very bases of civilised life’. Winston Churchill judged that the country faced a calamity comparable only to that of defeat in war. Yet his colleague, and drinking partner, Lord Birkenhead could see a ray of hope – the railwaymen’s leader and MP, J.H. Thomas, whom he dubbed ‘unquestionably the cleverest politician Labour has produced’ and moreover one animated not by any mean partisan spirit but by deep human sympathy and patriotism.

What was it in Jimmy Thomas’s career that had won such high praise from a political opponent? How far did his subsequent career justify these plaudits? And were the germs of his later disastrous fall already perhaps present when he entered ministerial office for the first time in 1924?

Poverty and Unionism

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